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#4113, 10 September 2013
End of American Hegemony: Iran, North Korea and now, Syria
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS
Email: subachandran@ipcs.org

The Obama administration, after failing in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, today is itching to carry out military strikes against Syria. In the contemporary world, especially during the last two decades, the American foreign policy has been met with a series of failures, starting from Iran and North Korea. Is this the end of American hegemony? If it is indeed, what does this mean for global stability and international order? Who is likely to, perhaps more importantly, who should fill the void, which is being created with the American decline?

First, a short note on the ongoing debate on the current crisis in Syria. There are adequate reports to prove that the chemical weapons have been indeed used in Syria against the population. The argument – that Syria has not violated any international norms by using chemical weapons, or has not threatened to use against another country, in this case the US, may have a legal position, but is against any moral and political norms, that have been widely accepted by the international community and the institutions including the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.
Another set of arguments, pinning the outcome to the formal report of UN team of inspectors whether Syria has in fact used chemical weapons or not, is an escapist strategy or worse, not willing to call a spade a spade. What if there is an undisputable proof of the use of chemical weapons, or any other weapons of mass destruction by a State against its own people? Should the international community hide behind legal arguments and do nothing about a State killing its own people?

The primary focus of this commentary is not about Syria – whether there is a case for the US to pursue military strikes unilaterally or through the UN. Rather, it is about the declining power of an international hegemon, and its fallouts on the global order.
Undoubtedly, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War, the US has become the sole super power and an international hegemon since the 1990s. No country has wielded the military superiority in the history of world, which the US has now. Not only the US has been sole super power, but also has been investing in military technology and has been leading the race. The difference is almost like Usain Bolt, running a 100 meters dash with few school children! The US is much ahead, and is continuing to increase the gap. Look at the nuclear weapons, ICBMs, aircraft carriers and now the precision personified drones. Clearly, the US is a generation ahead of other States that could be even considered as a potential contender, including China.
Besides the military superiority, the US also has substantial political clout at the international level. It has been successful in bulldozing other institutions – both the UN and the NATO to pursue its strategy. Though many within the NATO would prefer an independent strategy, they have not succeeded in going alone so far, in taking any major international decisions.

But has the US succeeded today in converting this military and political superiority in the last two decades to achieve the desired results? Is that not what a hegemon is supposed to do – converting its political and military superiority to coerce an outcome, irrespective of the resistance? The American record in this regard in the recent decades has been far from even satisfactory. Consider the following cases – Iran, North Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the 1980s, the US has used all possible strategies to make a regime change in Iran. The economic sanctions and the UN resolutions have not been sufficient enough to cause any damage in Iran, leading to the American objective of a regime change in Tehran. Iran today is continuing its pursuit of nuclear weapons and there is a strong pressure on the US to engage Teheran rather than isolating it. There is no indication, that the new President of Iran is likely to make any decisive U-turn in his country’s objective to build nuclear weapons.

North Korea perhaps is the biggest failure in terms of any decisive American foreign policy. Thanks to the presence of nuclear weapons, the US today is afraid of opening any military front vis-a-vis Pyongyang. Rather, the US is expecting China to handle the issue and keep North Korean military interests and pursuits within an acceptable framework. However, North Korea is unlikely to de-nuclearize.

More than Iran and North Korea, perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan should be considered as the biggest foreign policy failures for the US. While the American Presidents from George Bush, the senior to Obama today did not want to militarily interfere in North Korea and Iran, cutting cross the party lines in the US, there has been an approval for the American strategies towards Iraq and Afghanistan. But, what has been the American score card in these two countries, where there were no nuclear weapons, or any weapons of substantial military significance? Are Iraq and Afghanistan any better today, than before the American invasions? The answer should be an emphatic no.
Why then is Obama is itching to strike Syria? Why then there is so much of rubbish being produced in the American media that something needs to be done to avoid future Syrias? Perhaps, Obama sees Syria as “doable” vis-a-vis North Korea and Iran. In military terms, Syria stands no chance against the US; and that shows the decline of American military strength – to target a weak opponent and keep away from States such as North Korea. Such a selective target will only increase the resolve of States like Iran to possess nuclear weapons.

The era of American hegemony is on the decline. But the bigger question is, what next? Will an American decline help the evolving international order? Despite all the criticisms, the US is a great democratic society and many within believe in shared values. The “American dream” within is worth emulating in every country, in terms of ideals, aspirations and delivery institutions. China, the distant contender is no way closer to any domestic emulation in terms of an internal model and ideal.
It is in this context – a declining hegemon with no contender, there should be a sincere push to increase the faith in multilateral institutions and global norms. In fact, the US has to lead this initiative, in terms of building international norms and institutions acceptable to every one; that would be the greatest American contribution to a “global dream”. Will the US realizes its relative decline, yet the potential to shape an international structure, and perhaps make the greatest American contribution to international history?

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

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